Gambling proposal dies in Legislature; question remains on Hawaiian Home Lands funding of …

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Hawaii is no closer to allowing legal gambling after the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee on Thursday “indefinitely” deferred a bill that would have allowed the Hawaiian Homes Commission to decide whether it wanted to allow a casino, lottery, bingo or even horse racing to bankroll a new way to get Native Hawaiians onto their ancestral lands.

State Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, chairwoman of the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee, shelved Senate Bill 1321, which had divided the committee, Native Hawaiians, the community at large and the Hawaiian Homes Commission, which voted 5-4 to refer the casino concept to the Legislature.

Now the question remains unanswered of how the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands will come up with millions of dollars to help clear the backlog of more than 28,000 beneficiaries, some of whom have been waiting for homes and land for decades. At current funding levels, DHHL is forecast to need another century to clear the backlog.

After SB 1321 died Thursday in the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Commission, Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman William J. Aila, Jr. said in a statement:

“Last week we saw a glimmer of hope with the proposed amendments made by the Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs that would have allowed the Hawaiian Homes Commission and our beneficiaries the authority to create a gaming operation in order to create a consistent source of infrastructure funding. Today, that flicker died. Funding is the barrier between DHHL’s raw landholdings becoming developed lots suitable for homesteading.

“Delegates to the constitutional convention amended the constitution in 1978 in hopes of ensuring sufficient funding for the Department. The courts ruled in favor of beneficiaries in the
Kalima lawsuit and while Judge Castagnetti ruled in favor of DHHL funding in the Nelson lawsuit, the state appealed that decision. We have heard that gaming is a proposal much of our community does not welcome, but a consistent funding source for infrastructure to develop homestead lots is still a puzzle that needs to be solved. I commend the Department staff for their innovative thinking and attempt to address our greatest shortfall — funding.”

The House version of the bill stalled immediately in the House Economic Development Committee.

At the same time, state Rep. Sean Quinlan, chairman of the House Economic Development Committee, deferred House Bill 383, which would have created a state poker commission to oversee live poker rooms; HB 772, which would have allowed a casino at the
Hawai‘i Convention Center that would require players to stay in an Oahu hotel for each day or night of gaming; and HB 736, which would establish a pilot program for digital sports betting platforms.

SB 1321 — the Senate’s version of the DHHL resort casino bill — was then rewritten to address several concerns.

Instead of leaving it up to the Legislature to decide whether to lift Hawaii’s prohibition on legalized gambling, state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz proposed changes that would take the issue back to the Home Lands Commission, which would have had until
Dec. 31, 2026, to decide whether to proceed with any form of gaming on DHHL land west of Ko Olina.

Rather than another divisive 5-4 vote, the new version of the bill would have required the Home Lands Commission to approve the idea by a “supermajority” of six votes.

Just as important, Dela Cruz and Shimabukuro said, the changes would have given Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiaries and the Home Lands Commission “self-determination” over the issue.

On Thursday there was no discussion and no vote in the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee hearing, which lasted less than two minutes.

But Shimabukuro’s deferral of SB 1321 hinted at the division among even among her own committee, where at least two of the five members expressed clear opposition when the amended version first was heard Tuesday.

On Thursday, Shimabukuro said, “At this point in time it appears that there’s just not enough support and there just needs to be more discussion had for SB 1321.”

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